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Reining in Nuclear Proliferation

Sharon Weiner

Revelations that a Russian scientist may have helped Iran’s nuclear weapons program are “a nightmare for the U.S.,” says SIS professor Sharon Weiner.

Weiner is the author of Our Own Worst Enemy? Institutional Interests and the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Expertise (MIT Press, 2011).

In her new book, she details U.S. efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons expertise from post-Soviet Union scientists who suddenly found themselves unemployed or scraping by in a collapsing economy.

Weiner interviewed more than 150 scientists, program managers, policy makers, and others in the United States, Russia, Ukraine, and parts of central Asia. She went through official channels to interview many of them, but she also tracked down sources around former nuclear weapons development centers.

Stopping Proliferation

Disasters such as the recent Danilenko affair were precisely the kind of meltdown that the U.S. programs, conducted in cooperation with the former Soviet countries, were supposed to prevent. Job creation for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) experts and repurposing former weapons facilities for commercial use was the strategy.

Vyacheslav Danilenko, a scientist identified by the Washington Post as the “foreign expert” the International Atomic Energy Agency accused of helping Iran develop a nuclear detonator, has denied the accusations. Danilenko, whom the Post describes as an expert in using explosions to create tiny diamonds for industrial uses, worked in Iran in the 1990s.

“This is our big concern, that there would be a rogue Soviet nuclear weapon scientist who would sell his skills to Iran,” Weiner says.

She doesn’t buy Danilenko’s protestations that his work is unrelated to nuclear weapons work, noting that the scientist worked for 30 years at a key Soviet nuclear weapons research center. His denial is understandable, she says, but the real question is whether Danilenko is one of a kind or if there are others like him we don’t yet know about.

“One of the problems I identify is how do you know you’re working with a nuclear scientist as opposed to somebody else,” Weiner says. “It’s a similar problem to the controversy over this current scientist . . . In the beginning, when the U.S. started cooperating with Russia—in particular Russia is the key on these issues—you couldn’t ask the Russians, ‘Give us a list of your top nuclear weapon scientists.’ They would have said that’s a national security secret.”

A Mixed Record

The performance of the U.S. programs designed to control proliferation of nuclear expertise is spotty at best:

  • Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, through 2008, the United States spent more than $1.2 billion to discourage the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons expertise from the former Soviet states. Yet at best the programs created jobs for only one in five such experts.
  • No real effort was made to verify the credentials of people who claimed WMD experience.
  • None of the projects Weiner studied traced the fate of project participants once funding for their programs ended.

The programs’ performance is perhaps unsurprising given the bureaucratic tangles the organizations found themselves ensnared in.

The Problem of Goal Displacement

One major problem was goal displacement.

“I study institutions, how they behave, how they follow their own preferences, how they come up with rules that reflect those preferences, and in the process how they end up doing stuff that’s kind of contrary to the policy goal they were given,” Weiner explains.

“Goal displacement is something all organizations have a tendency to do. You give them a goal. If the goal doesn’t fit in with what they normally would do, they make the goal look like what they normally would do. Because they’re rational, they [change] the goal to something that they can demonstrate success or that they can measure more easily.”

That’s why some programs, given the unfamiliar goal of nonproliferation of WMD knowledge, adopted instead the goal of transparency, a switch at odds with the original goal and a step sure to create resistance from Russians who were suddenly asked to reveal the identities of their key nuclear weapons scientists.

Creative Counting

“It was really hard for U.S. programs to demonstrate that they had created key jobs for key nuclear weapons scientists because you couldn’t identify the scientists,” Weiner says.

Program officials tasked with creating market-based employment in a former communist country came to realize the number of new jobs was going to be low. And that would reflect poorly on them.

“So instead they started counting the number of scientists they, quote, engaged. Scientists they worked with,” Weiner says.

The count tallied even temporary jobs that would never lead to permanent employment.

“So some of these programs say, ‘Oh, you know, we worked with 85,000 WMD experts,’ and then you start to look at that number and eventually you realize the number you’re working with, of the 85,000 experts, they ended up creating maybe 2,000 jobs, half of which weren’t with WMD experts at all.”

Institutional standard procedures also led to some absurd situations. U.S. companies got paired with Russian institutes for commercial conversion on the basis not of experience in conversion but because they came in with the lowest bid.

That’s how Russia’s premier missile design facility got paired for commercial conversion with a soft-drink company.

“One of the Russian experts said it’s the equivalent of asking U.S. nuclear weapons experts to make baby diapers,” Weiner says. “They were appalled.”

A Major Dividend

Yet for all their shortcomings, Weiner says the programs yielded the United States an invaluable benefit.

“Were these programs worth it? In terms of nonproliferation, probably not,” she says. “But in terms of overall U.S.-Russian relations I think they were crucial to lay the foundation that means that Russia today still has the potential to be a partner for the U.S. . . . Russia didn’t take the place of Soviet Union partially because of the cooperation, engagement, good feelings that resulted from these programs. And that was worth it.”

On November 30, Weiner will make a presentation based on her book from 4 to 5:15 p.m. in the School of International Service Building’s Beacon Conference Room. George Perkovich, vice president for studies and director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, will provide commentary. For more details, contact Eric Fillinger at usfp@american.edu.